The Truth About 'Tourist Apartheid' in Cuba

Contrary to recent headlines, Cuba is not flinging open its doors for tourist travel. Although there have been recent changes in U.S. regulations, it is still technically illegal for an American to be a tourist in Cuba. In fact, during a recent art-buying trip I took to Cuba, I learned there is a term used to describe the visitor situation in the country: “tourist apartheid.” In other words, travelers still remain separate from the general population. 

The purpose of my trip was to buy art, but the visit also allowed me to learn more about the lives of “real” Cubans — which is very different from what tourists see and experience. The people I interviewed whispered their answers while glancing over their shoulders. “Who could possibly be listening?” I asked.

The truth is that anyone can be listening.

I took a similar trip to Cuba last year. That was when I learned that freedom is still scarce in the country. During that trip, I was followed by a spy who somehow knew that I was carrying a book by a well-known dissident Cuban blogger — even though I hadn’t shown the book to anyone and had not left it in my hotel room. The ministry of tourism contacted my group leader, who made me surrender the “anti-government propaganda.”

A local ration market where Cubans are allotted a certain amount of government subsidized product monthly.

We aren’t imagining that Cuba is an oppressive socialist regime — it is.

To get a job there, Cubans still need to be able to provide documentation that they are good socialists. Telling an American journalist the story of your life could jeopardize that. So for that reason, most names in this story have been changed. I spent my time on the ground trying to answer my own questions about the current situation in Cuba. Here is what I learned:

There is a huge financial divide

During a lunch at a popular tourist restaurant in Havana, a doorman pulled me aside. Under the guise of a “restaurant tour,” he told me his story. After completing six years of medical school and obtaining a prominent position in the hospital, he earns $52 per month — roughly the same amount it costs to eat lunch in the restaurant where he works. He stays in Cuba because he loves what he does. He continues to practice medicine because he loves what he does. When he met his wife’s family, they were disappointed that she was marrying a doctor; her last boyfriend had been a waiter. Right now, waiters and taxi drivers earn more than doctors and engineers, because they cater to tourists, whereas doctors and engineers cater to the general population.

When you snap photos of locals, be prepared for a “tip” request. 

There are two currencies: one for Cubans and one for tourists. The tourist dollar, the CUC, is worth 25 Cuban pesos and is roughly equivalent to one U.S. dollar. It would be reasonable to think that in a country where the average income is 20 CUCs per month, food and shelter would be inexpensive. Not true, according to my tour guide, Julia, who said “it costs $250 to $300 per month to live.” Those who don’t work full-time in the tourist industry moonlight in it or become creative at making money on the side. One artist told me, “All Cubans are capitalists.”

There is a huge information gap

When I needed help carrying a case of water to my hotel room (the same five-star hotel where Jay Z and Beyoncé stayed), my driver was not allowed to help me take it up in the elevator. Until recently, Cubans were not even allowed in hotel lobbies. The rationale? A hotel lobby offers forbidden access to international information. In lobbies, Wi-Fi is free, and U.S. television shows blare in hotel bars.

Julia whispered to me that if she were caught watching American television, she would go to jail. She is not a subversive; she just really likes HGTV. And while Internet is not restricted in Cuba, as it is in China, access costs $4 per hour. 

There is a scarcity of food

The Cuban government wants tourists to believe that food is plentiful, and for tourists, it is. At hotels, tourists are offered eggs cooked a dozen ways every morning. 

Though Cuba is known for it’s vintage cars, a peek under the hood often reveals a Russian diesel engine.

The story is very different for Cuban nationals. One woman I met (we’ll call her Maria) told me that getting eggs for her children is challenging. Eggs are often not available — not in a bodega (aka, a ration market) or even on the more expensive black market. She explained: “Sometimes the trucks transporting the eggs don’t work or have petrol; sometimes the drivers are not working. Everything has to go right for eggs to make it to market.” 

Related: 8 Things We’re Going to Do as Soon as We Can Go to Cuba?

My visit to a local bodega confirmed that what is offered by the government is far more scarce than the authorities would have Americans believe.

There is actually a fear of freedom

While Americans muse that the Cubans’ biggest fear is that we will overrun their little island country with McDonald’s outlets, their biggest fear is actually that their families will leave for the U.S. at the first opportunity. Miguel told me that “every Cuban family has an empty closet from someone who left.” When I asked him why people stay when they could leave if they chose, he told me it’s usually to take care of relatives. His lamented that his son will most likely leave as soon as he has the chance. “Everyone wants to leave,” he said.

Political propaganda still lines the streets. This is taken from a speech given by Fidel Castro that translates as “Faithful to our History.”

Related: Ever Wanted to See Cuba? You Can With These Cruises?

Shortly after President Obama announced the easing of restrictions on travel, masses of Cubans took to rafts in a desperate bid to reach the U.S. “They are worried that the U.S. will change the wet-foot/dry-foot rule,” Miguel explained. He is referring to the policy stating that Cubans who are caught at sea are returned to the island, but the lucky ones who make it to shore are given preferential immigration status.

The old guard still exists

At a late-night, wine-infused dinner in an art studio outside Havana, I had a chance to debate politics and the coming “avalanche of Americans” with a group of artists. The conversation started out boisterous, and the coming changes were hotly debated. While it stopped short of being anti-American, there was a definite sentiment that U.S relations aren’t all they are cracked up to be. As I began furiously scribbling notes, the room quieted down. When I asked if I had gone too far with my questions, one of the artists answered: “I think the silence speaks for itself.”

While most Cubans will freely tell you that they hope for change, some in the artist community enjoy a certain sense of Cuban pride. Cuban artists are allowed to travel abroad to promote and sell their art. And as one artist described it: “When you are at an art show with others from, say, Spain or Guatemala, collectors are only interested in talking to you, because you are Cuban. Fidel gave us that.” 

Related: Drink It In — How to Explore Cuba Like Hemingway

This type of pro-revolution discourse is described by Cubans as “dressing one’s self in the flag.” 

I later learned that this particular artist is the granddaughter of one of the most famous revolutionaries in Cuban history. She also admonished my guide to “warn her the next time you bring a reporter around.”

The only way to truly know what is going to happen in Cuba is to spend time on the ground. Unfortunately that is still a difficult prospect for most Americans. The iron curtain will lift gradually, but the future remains uncertain. 

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